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What is Depression?

The National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) defines depression as “a common but serious mood disorder.” Depression can affect the way we think, feel, and handle life responsibilities and daily activities.

However, according to the American Psychological Association (APA), it is “more than just sadness.”  Individuals with depression experience profound and pervasive grief, problems concentrating, and a lack of interest and pleasure in day-to-day activities. And this description is so far just skimming the surface.

So what do we need to know to understand depression more fully? Let’s dig in…

A Spiritual Perspective on Anxiety and Depression - Art of Living Retreat CenterHow Common is Depression?

So how many of us are affected by depression? Perhaps more than we may think.

According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), almost 7% of US adults have had “at least one major depressive episode in the past year.”  Depression affects people of all ages and backgrounds.

Globally, it is estimated that 322 million people have depression, according to statistics from the Anxiety and Depression Association of America (ADAA). Depression also represents the most common disability in the US.

The statistics suggest many more of us than we may have surmised are affected by depression, so let’s learn a bit more.


There is more than one type of depression. In fact, there are several recognized types of depression, and their descriptions and symptoms differ one from the other.

According to NIMH and ADAA, types of depression include

  • Persistent Depressive Disorder (also known as dysthymia)
    A type of depression in which the symptoms persist for at least two years.
  • Postpartum Depression
    Major depression occurring during pregnancy or after delivery which may include anxiety, sadness, and exhaustion possibly impeding maternal duties.
  • Psychotic Depression
    Severe depression plus psychosis, including possible false beliefs or hallucinations, often of a depressive nature.
  • Seasonal Affective Disorder
    Depression typically occurring during the winter when there is less daylight, often recurring year after year.
  • Major Depressive Disorder
    Depression involving at least five of the diagnostic characteristics, including sadness or loss of interest.
  • Premenstrual Dysphoric Disorder
    Similar to PMS but more severe and disrupting functioning, from 10 days before the cycle to 3 days into it.
  • Depressive Disorder Due to Another Medical Condition
    Depression occurring due to illness such as hypothyroidism, endocrine illness, Parkinson’s, diabetes.
  • Adjustment Disorder with Depressed Mood
    Depression within three months of a life-changing event, such as marriage, child, new job, often resolved in six months.

These categories illustrate the variety of ways depression can manifest.

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The symptoms of depression vary among depression types and even age groups. Let’s take a look at some general symptoms first before diving into the more specific ones.

According to The Mayo Clinic, the following are some of the more common symptoms of depression.

General Depression Symptoms

  • Loss of interest in normal activities
  • Lack of energy
  • Slowed body movements and speech
  • Feelings of worthlessness
  • Trouble focusing and making decisions
  • Sadness, hopelessness
  • Restlessness and anxiety
  • Insomnia or other sleep disturbances
  • Thoughts of suicide
  • Weight loss or gain
  • Irritability or anger
  • Headaches or other pain

Depression Symptoms in Older Adults

    •  Social isolation
    •  Memory problems
    • Sleep issues and/or fatigue
    • Decreased sex drive
    • Suicidal thoughts

Depression Symptoms in Children and Teens

  • Sadness, irritability, clinginess, worry
  • Physical pain
  • Not wanting to attend school, poor academic performance
  • Feeling worthless
  • Self-harm
  • Alcohol or drug use
  • Social avoidance
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Symptoms not only vary by age group, but across the types of depression, as well. The following are types of depression and the symptoms.

Major Depressive Disorder

  • Appetite changes
  • Suicidal thoughts
  • Fatigue
  • Feeling worthless or guilty
  • Inability to concentrate or make decisions

Persistent Depressive Disorder (Dysthymia)

  • Hopelessness or guilt
  • Low self-esteem
  • Low energy
  • Decision-making issues
  • Lasts more than two years

Premenstrual Dysphoric Disorder

  • Occurs near start of menstrual cycle
  • Extreme anger, sadness, irritability, anxiety
  • Fatigue and sleep issues
  • Severe disruptive symptoms

Depressive Disorder
Due to another Medical Condition

  • Symptoms triggered by other medical condition
  • Hypothyroidism
  • Cushing’s syndrome
  • Endocrine and reproductive disorders

Adjustment Disorder with Depressed Mood

  • Symptoms triggered by change of life
  • Disproportionate distress
  • Within three months of life stressor
  • Impaired functioning

Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD)

  •  Symptoms triggered by winter
  • Symptoms of major depression
  • Tied to shorter days and less daylight

By bringing awareness to the myriad of symptoms associated with these particular categories, we better prepare ourselves to notice them.

Let’s dig a bit deeper.

Sadness VS Grief

What is the Difference?

It’s important for us to be able to distinguish between sadness and depression. So how do we determine that? The American Psychiatric Association makes the following distinctions between experiencing grief or sadness and having depression.

When we’re experiencing grief, our pain and sadness is interwoven with pleasant memories, while when we’re experiencing depression, pleasant thoughts are decreased. When we’re grieving, we still feel good about ourselves—no matter how sad we are, our self-esteem is maintained. However, when we’re in depression, we can experience self-loathing and worthlessness. Sometimes grief can be prolonged by the onset of depression if triggered by loss, but they are two separate issues to be addressed.

So, while grief is a reaction to loss, depression goes much deeper.

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Warning Signs

Some of the warning signs of depression include

  • Losing interest in your normal activities
  • Not experiencing pleasure
  • Feelings of worthlessness or hopelessness
  • Disruptions in your sleep pattern
  • Changes in body weight
  • Loss of appetite
  • Overwhelming feelings of sadness or despair
  • Not wanting to socialize
  • Feelings of guilt
  • Anxiety
  • Thoughts of suicide.

The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline in the US is 800-273-8255 and is available 24-hours a day for anyone in need. Remember to call 911 in any emergency situation.


Depression does not have one single simple cause. Indeed, there are many identifiable conditions that contribute to the disorder. NAMI highlights the following causes:

  • Genetic factors
  • Experiencing trauma
  • Abuse of drugs and alcohol
  • Changes in the brain
  • Circumstances in life
  • Other medical conditions

Genetic factors plays a role, as depression appears to run in families. The experience of trauma, especially when we’re young, can lead to brain changes leading to depression. As many as 30% of substance abusers also have depression—a dangerous mixture, as alcohol worsens depression. There are many instances of potential downward spiral effects like these when we’re experiencing depression.

What is depression?

Risk Factors

We can also benefit from taking a look at the risk factors for depression. Though not necessarily the cause of the disorder, they offer us a way to educate ourselves about our individual risk.

Are you high-risk or low-risk or somewhere in between?

Some of the common traits among those with depression, according to the Mayo Clinic, are

  • Low self-esteem, self-criticism
  • Traumatic events , physical or sexual abuse, financial issues
  • Other mental health disorders
  • Gay, lesbian, bisexual, or transgender in non-supportive environment
  • Serious illness, chronic illness, or pain.

These factors may indicate a greater risk for depression, so awareness is crucial.


Depression can lead to a variety of negative outcomes if not addressed. According to Harvard Medical School, depression causes changes the way we think. It is thought that because depression involves the interruption of certain neurotransmitters such as norepinephrine, dopamine, and serotonin, detrimental brain changes can occur.

The changes in the brain, as well as the triggers for depression, seem to have a negative impact on cognitive skills such as information processing, attention, decision-making, memory, and executive function. Because these changes affect our everyday quality of life, these impairments are highly crucial for us to avoid when possible. Awareness is key.

The Mayo Clinic asserts that complications such as premature death, self-mutilation and other forms of self-harm, suicide attempts, social isolation, and relationship problems can occur, especially if it is not treated. Other conditions such as obesity—which may lead to diabetes and heart disease—alcohol or drug abuse, panic disorder, and social phobia are also all possible negative outcomes of untreated depression.

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Depression is a serious and potentially debilitating disorder. Untreated, it can lead to complications such as obesity, cognitive impairment, problems in career and academics, relationships, and our overall quality of life. Depression can take form in a variety of ways, including major depression, post-partum, selective mutism, and other types. Becoming familiar with these types and their symptoms helps us to become more aware and thus better equipped to notice their presence.

Educating ourselves and addressing these issues can help us to be healthier, happier humans. We are thus better prepared to move toward living our best lives possible.

Your well-being is important. Your quality of life is important. Your mental health is important.